by Kamna Shastri
Mohamed Abdi paces the front of the room with his bright red sneakers. He is gearing up to speak to a gathering of Youth Development service providers and executives in Olympia for Youth Advocacy Day. When he begins to talk, he has a conversational ease that overpowers any nerves he may have had.
Abdi is a twenty-three-year-old communications student at the University of Washington. His family fled Somalia in 1991 after a civil war broke. They settled in Seattle in 1997. Those first years were hard as Abdi’s family navigated a new cultural system and a new language. When he joined a program at the CARE center, a community agency dedicated to closing the opportunity gap for students in South King County, Abdi’s life began to change with the help of caring mentors and adults who provided him with culturally sensitive support that he wasn’t receiving in school.
Throughout his academic career he participated in youth development programs. They encouraged him to recognize his own inner worth. Specifically, a trip to Washington DC where he had the chance to discuss important issues like immigration and education with Senator Maria Cantwell.
“So when I joined some of these youth programs it really inspired me and motivated me to make a difference ultimately and to be a leader, and try to change the narrative,” he said.
Abdi is referring to a narrative that keeps people of color and East African youth from having a voice. His empowering experiences with youth development are deeply connected to Abdi’s belief that investments in mentoring and enrichment programs for youth will change outcomes for youth of color.
“We will see more people of color in places of power. We are talking about city council, we are talking about governor,” he said, “even president.”
Where Did Youth Development Come From?
The subject of youth development doesn’t get much coverage or interest, according to Rene Murry, the Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for the Youth Development Executives of King County (YDEKC). But it is integral to the conversation around youth delinquency prevention and general adolescent well-being.
The field of youth development and after school programming goes all the way back to 1800’s America, according to a documentary called “The History of After School”. Children stopped working in mines and factories and were left unsupervised after school. Children living in tenement housing needed an alternative to the street. Accidents were the leading cause of child death and parents were concerned about access to alcohol and other unknown risks of being outside. Organizations, religious and charitable, took the reins of implementing youth development programs and some of those organizations still exist today. The YMCA Is a prime example.
In its modern iteration, the youth development field includes expanded learning, such as after school workshops; mentoring; and wrap-around services like childcare and support for students who are English Language Learners.
Youth Development means Equity and Investment
Tukwila based After School All Stars is one example. The program is free and provides after school programs – homework help, DJing classes, STEM programming and career exploration opportunities – that keep middle school youth safe and encourages them to envision their futures. Ninety-three percent of the youth who attend the organization’s programs are youth of color.
Ranna Daoud, Executive Director of After-School All-Stars, says many of the youth come from immigrant and refugee families and attend after school programs as an alternative to circumstances outside their control. That means some may be dealing with traumatic situations and need an environment of care and stability.
“What our program can do is make sure that when they walk in the door after the school bell rings, that we are responsive, that we are welcoming, that they can be exactly who they are , they can just feel loved, appreciated, valued and really comfortable in who they are and who they want to be,” she said.
Warm and nurturing environments like the one Daoud describes are a preventative alternative route to the inequitable cradle to prison pipeline. The US justice system incarcerates a disproportionate number of youth of color. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the ratio of incarcerated youth of color to white youth was 2.2:1 in 2011.
Murry says Washington state has a stake in harm reduction for youth. But simply trying to keep youth out of the juvenile justice system isn’t enough. There needs to be an alternative that prioritizes young people’s holistic well-being rather than thinking of youth as problems that need to be mitigated.
“Youth need to be inspired, not intervened,” Murry said, emphasizing the state’s duty to incorporate youth development into their legislation. Minimal state funding trickles is allotted to the operations of youth development programs, an increase would help service providers who are mostly nonprofit and rely on yearly fundraising to sustain programming. Whatever funding there is for youth centered work goes to the state’s Learning Assistant Program which only has a small provision for mentoring and community partnerships. The majority of the burden of child and youth well-being then falls on public schools, which are already overburdened and operate on shoestring budgets.
YDEKC along with Schools Out Washington and other partners are convening the Youth Development Strategy Table to solve new ways for the state to invest in after school and wrap around service providers who are integral to encouraging, mentoring and supporting young people’s growth and development. . Next year, YDEKC will put forth three key asks that stemmed from a task force, a result of a failed Senate Bill last year.
First, they want to see a dedicated Youth Development officer housed under the Adolescence Unite of the state’s Department of Children and Family Services. Second, a long-term vision for the staff officer position, and third, sustainable funding by creating an incentive for regions to match investments towards youth development work pertaining to prevention. These specific asks would provide institutional support needed by staff and organizations who administer expanded learning, wraparound services and mentoring opportunities in their communities.
Organizations – and the youth they serve – used Youth Advocacy Day to speak with Senators and Legislative aids as a way to begin creating relationships with legislators. A
One young person making the rounds in the capitol was high school sophomore Yubi Mamiya. She is a huge proponent of youth development work and has benefited from youth programming both as a participant and as someone looking to inspire and mentor others. Right now, she is part of a group called the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council, which will be coming to Olympia in February.
Mamiya says she has come to value the experiences – like youth advocacy day – that take place outside the boundaries of a school classroom. She says “what you learn outside of school is what really inspires you to change your community and apply what you learned to really live a healthy life.”
Kamna is a writer and media maker from Seattle. Few things are more wonderful to her than learning about the histories, inspirations and dreams of the people with whom she crosses paths. Good conversation, a cup of spicy chai, and music are all she needs to make her world go around. Read more of her work at kamnashastri.wordpress.com.